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from A Squandered Life / Road to Calgary '67
….there was a stretcher running across it from the dashboard through to the back window.
The work in Winnipeg finished and there wasn't any more. It was getting much colder and the little Volkswagen didn't have a heater. I dreamt of a big american car with a heater and seats wide enough to sleep on. I eventually found a dealer who took my battered Volkswagen in exchange for a '57 Chevvy. I was blissed. Big warm comfy car with a big smooth 6 cylinder engine. A world away from my noisy beetle. The only trouble was, it burned oil as fast as it burned petrol. It lasted about a hundred miles and I eventually swapped it for a lift to the station and a train ticket to Vancouver.
At least it was warm on the train, and you could buy hotdogs while you travelled. And you could sleep in motion. The prairies seemed much more appealing from the train. And they gradually gave way to the foothills of Alberta and eventually to the mighty Rocky Mountains themselves. That train, with its Vista Dome, was a thing of wonder as we climbed and tunnelled and canyoned our way through the wild wild forests and the eternally rushing streams. Everywhere looked like the perfect place to set up camp.
We carried on through the lush western valleys and soon nosed into Vancouver Station. My brother Harry was studying at University of British Columbia and lived out in the suburbs somewhere. I found him and we ate Chinese and wandered through the parks and the beautiful beach at Stanley. Over the next week or so I looked for work, and even went for an interview at National Cash Register. I borrowed some good clothes from Harry but, after sitting in a waiting room with other hopefuls for over an hour, was turned away by a snotty little shit of a company man who said “We don't interview men without a tie.”
I also went down to the shipyards to see if I could get a job on a ship heading for Australia. I encountered another slightly older guy with similarly vague ideas. For the next few days we jumped on freight trains to get to and from the harbour and its various parts. We clambered aboard a few ships and met some hardened crusty sea-goers, but the informal approach was ultimately unproductive. The formal approach was even worse. In the shipping company offices they said things like, “We only recruit from our London / Hong Kong / Hamburg office.”
In time it became clear I wasn't going to find work or a ship there, and I decided to hitch back out to Alberta where it was rumoured that work was relatively easy to find in the oil fields. Hitching was tougher than the train but had more moments of the sublime. Walking alone along the mountain route between rides, I would have intimate glimpses of passes and precipices and rivers that would never otherwise have caught my attention.
Halfway through the mountains it began snowing heavily. It was late and cold and I was in the middle of nowhere. Eventually a heavy old Buick towing a heavily overloaded trailer pulled up. I trotted over to the driver's side as he was rolling down his window. He peered up at me with a haggard face. “Can you drive?” he asked before I could say anything. “Yes”, I said. “Well get in this side coz I'm gonna get some sleep”. He got out and clambered around and into the back seat. I sat down behind the wheel and saw that the passenger seat was folded forward and that there was a stretcher running across it from the dashboard through to the back window. On it there was another guy fast asleep. The driver tucked himself into the back seat with his legs under the suspended stretcher. “Okay?” he asked blearily. “Okay,” I said and he passed out. I slowly pulled back out on to the road. They had country music on the radio and so, for the next couple of hundred miles, it was me, this heavy car and trailer, the dark snowy road, and pedal steel guitars. The two guys were completely out of it and I could, theoretically, have driven their car anywhere. In fact, of course, there was only one road and it led to Calgary.
© 2013 Deacon Martin